A few years back I taught a first year seminar course a couple of times. It had 20 students in it, and the topic was “the history of food”. It was a very experiential-based course, and the assignments primarily involved writing. The students in the course came from many different disciplines. It was probably the most fun I have ever had teaching. Through teaching it, I had one great epiphany – I shouldn’t expect epic writing masterpieces from first year students, or perhaps even fourth year students. I have to say, after the first assignment, my expectations were somewhat blown. I had envisioned reasonably good writing skills, especially from humanities students, but what I got was in some cases quite ghastly to read. I didn’t blame the students… but it did beg some questions. Were the majority of incoming students poor writers? Was I expecting far too much? How were they going to cope with the rigours of academic writing?
Then it dawned on me that they were probably lacking good writing skills in part because of poor skills obtained in elementary and secondary school. But they also were young, and had very limited experience in terms of writing. You only become a good writer through life’s experiences, and actually writing. Good writers enjoy writing. Some people of course have a natural ability, but many others have to grow that ability. Part of this stems from reading – it helps ingrain technique, and improves both spelling and grammar by introducing new words. It also helps propagate new ideas. People who don’t read, very rarely become good writers. Another part of course comes from writing. Experience begets ability. It was too much to expect that 18 year old students were going to be good writers, but any stretch of the imagination. Some might be good at writing by the end of their tenure at university, others might take decades more, yet others will never be good at writing.
Here, students in the humanities have the advantage, as their discipline involves doing research, making arguments, and writing. Their work will improve over their years at university – I have seen this happen over the last three years of my daughters history essays at university. Other students, especially those in STEM, might never improve beyond the stuffy world of scientific writing, which often has very little in the way of soul. It is actually sad that we spend so little effort in having STEM students write more, especially opinion pieces beyond the black-and-white formulaic world they live in. Computer science students may be even worse, for some their idea of writing is program documentation. The worst pieces of work are often postgrad STEM theses, which are so boring, it begs to question whether many of these people will ever be good writers (beyond their fields).
Of course in computer science we never really ask questions that require a written response. Designing an algorithm or writing a program doesn’t really require “writing” skills per se – even though programming does require the ability to decipher and comprehension programs, a skill which a number of students seem to lack. We never ask students to write an essay describing why they think goto statements were considered so horrendous, or why Algol-68 was never adopted. We likely do them a great disservice. Sure, many won’t like the idea of writing, but they will likely have to write in their careers, and no one wants to read poor writing. You could be a fantastic programmer, say someone who designed an evolutionary new programming language, but if you can’t write about it in a manner that gets other people interested, what does it matter?
My own writing journey should have given me some indication that 18 year old’s would not produce works of art. Years of STEM provided me with little in the way of artistic writing, although I always tried to push this envelope, even if only to make scientific writing more interesting. At 18, I was not a good writer, although I did read a lot. Years of worldly experience, a love of reading, and practice at writing have made me a better writer. You also have to have a love for writing, and telling a story – no matter the subject.